Indigenous Australians

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander
Indigenous Australians
Total population
798,365 (2016)[1]
3.3% of Australia's population
Population distribution by state/territory
New South Wales265,685(3.55%)
Western Australia100,512(3.93%)
Northern Territory74,546(30.34%)
South Australia42,265(2.47%)
Australian Capital Territory7,513(1.86%)
Several hundred Australian Aboriginal languages (many extinct or nearly so), Australian English, Australian Aboriginal English, Torres Strait Creole, Kriol
Related ethnic groups
Papuans, Melanesians

Indigenous Australians are people who are descended from groups that lived in Australia and surrounding islands before British colonisation. They include the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia. The term Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is preferred by many;[a] First Nations of Australia, First Peoples of Australia and First Australians are also increasingly common terms.

The time of arrival of the first peoples on the continent and nearby islands is a matter of debate among researchers. The earliest conclusively human remains found in Australia are those of Mungo Man LM3 and Mungo Lady, which have been dated to around 50,000 years BP.[2] Recent archaeological evidence from the analysis of charcoal and artefacts revealing human use suggests a date as early as 65,000 BP.[3][4] Luminescence dating has suggested habitation in Arnhem Land as far back as 60,000 years BP.[5] Evidence of fires in South-West Australia suggest "human presence in Australia 120,000 years ago", although more research is required.[6] Genetic research has inferred a date of habitation as early as 80,000 years BP. Other estimates have ranged up to 100,000 years[7] and 125,000 years BP.[8]

The population of Indigenous Australians at the time of permanent European settlement is contentious and has been estimated at between 318,000[9] and 1,000,000[10] with the distribution being similar to that of the current Australian population, the majority living in the south-east, centred along the Murray River.[11] A population collapse principally from disease followed European settlement,[12][13] beginning with a smallpox epidemic spreading three years after the arrival of Europeans. Massacres and frontier conflicts involving European settlers also contributed to depopulation.[14][15] The characterisation of this violence as genocide is controversial and disputed.[16]

Although there are a number of commonalities among the various Aboriginal peoples, there is also a great diversity among different communities and societies in Australia, each with its own mixture of cultures, customs and languages. In present-day Australia these groups are further divided into local communities.[17] At the time of initial European settlement, over 250 Aboriginal languages were spoken; it is currently estimated that 120 to 145 of these remain in use, but only 13 of these are not considered endangered.[18][19] Aboriginal people today mostly speak English, with Aboriginal phrases and words being added to create Australian Aboriginal English (which also has a tangible influence of Indigenous languages in the phonology and grammatical structure).

The Australian Census includes counts of Indigenous peoples, based on questions relating to individuals' self-identification as Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, or of both origins. As of 30 June 2016, the count was 798,365, or 3.3% of Australia's population.[1] Since 1995, the Australian Aboriginal Flag and the Torres Strait Islander Flag have been among the official flags of Australia.


Harold Thomas' Australian Aboriginal Flag


There is a number of appropriate terms to use when referring to Indigenous peoples of Australia, but there is general agreement that it is important to respect the "preferences of individuals, families, or communities, and allow them to define what they are most comfortable with" when referring to Indigenous people.[20]

The word aboriginal has been in the English language since at least the 16th century to mean, "first or earliest known, indigenous". It comes from the Latin word aborigines, derived from ab (from) and origo (origin, beginning).[21] The term was used in Australia to describe its Indigenous peoples as early as 1789. It became capitalised and was employed as the common name to refer to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, although today the latter are not included in the term. The term "Aborigine" is deprecated, being regarded as outdated and inappropriate, having connotations of colonial Australia.[20][22]

While the term "Indigenous Australians" has grown since the 1980s,[23] many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples dislike it, feeling that it is too generic and removes their identity. However, the term has a practical application and can be used where appropriate.[20]

In recent years, "First Nations",[24] "First Peoples"[25] and "First Australians" have become more common. First Nations is considered the most acceptable by most people.[20]

Being as specific as possible, for example naming the language group (such as Arrernte), demonym relating to geographic area (such as Nunga), is considered best practice and most respectful. (See also below under Regional groups section.) The abbreviation "ATSI" (for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people) is considered disrespectful.[22]

Terms "black" and "blackfella"

The term "black" has been used to refer to Indigenous Australians since European settlement.[26] While originally related to skin colour and often used pejoratively,[20] the term is used today to indicate Aboriginal heritage or culture in general and refers to any people of such heritage regardless of their level of skin pigmentation.[27] In the 1970s, many Aboriginal activists, such as Gary Foley, proudly embraced the term "black", and writer Kevin Gilbert's book from the time was entitled Living Black. The book included interviews with several members of the Aboriginal community, including Robert Jabanungga, reflecting on contemporary Aboriginal culture.[citation needed] Use of this term varies depending on context and its use needs care as it may be deemed inappropriate.[20]

A less formal term, used by Indigenous Australians and not normally derogatory, is "blackfellas", as distinguished from "whitefellas". Some people consider its use by white people offensive.[20]

Regional groups

Aboriginal groups

Men and boys playing a game of gorri, 1922

Aboriginal peoples of Australia are the various peoples indigenous to mainland Australia and associated islands, excluding the Torres Strait Islands.

The broad term Aboriginal Australians includes many regional groups that may be identified under names based on local language, locality, or what they are called by neighbouring groups. Some communities, cultures or groups may be inclusive of others and alter or overlap; significant changes have occurred in the generations after colonisation. The word "community" is often used to describe groups identifying by kinship, language or belonging to a particular place or "country". A community may draw on separate cultural values and individuals can conceivably belong to a number of communities within Australia; identification within them may be adopted or rejected. An individual community may identify itself by many names, each of which can have alternative English spellings.

Aboriginal farmers in Victoria, 1858

The naming of peoples is complex and multi-layered, but a few examples are Anangu in northern South Australia, and neighbouring parts of Western Australia and Northern Territory; Arrernte in central Australia; Koori (or Koorie) in New South Wales and Victoria (Aboriginal Victorians); Goorie (variant pronunciation and spelling of Koori) in South East Queensland and some parts of northern New South Wales; Murri used in parts of Queensland and northern New South Wales where specific collective names are not used; Tiwi people of the Tiwi Islands off NT, and Palawah in Tasmania. The largest Aboriginal communities – the Pitjantjatjara, the Arrernte, the Luritja and the Warlpiri – are all from Central Australia[citation needed]

Throughout the history of the continent, there have been many different Aboriginal groups, each with its own individual language, culture, and belief structure. At the time of British settlement, there were over 200 distinct languages.[28]

Robert Hawker Dowling, Group of Natives of Tasmania, 1859

The Tasmanian Aboriginal population are thought to have first crossed into Tasmania approximately 40,000 years ago via a land bridge between the island and the rest of mainland Australia during the last glacial period.[29] Estimates of the population of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania, before European arrival, are in the range of 3,000 to 15,000 people although genetic studies have suggested significantly higher figures, which are supported by Indigenous oral traditions that indicate a reduction in population from diseases introduced by British and American sealers before settlement.[30][b] The original population was further reduced to around 300 between 1803 and 1833 due to disease,[31] warfare and other actions of British settlers.[32] Despite over 170 years of debate over who or what was responsible for this near-extinction, no consensus exists on its origins, process, or whether or not it was genocide. However, using the "...UN definition, sufficient evidence exists to designate the Tasmanian catastrophe genocide".[30] A woman named Trugernanner (often rendered as Truganini) who died in 1876, was, and still is, widely believed to be the very last of the full-blooded Tasmanian Aboriginal people. However, in 1889 Parliament recognised Fanny Cochrane Smith (d:1905) as the last surviving full-blooded Tasmanian Aboriginal person.[c][d]

The 2016 census reported 23,572 Indigenous Australians in the state of Tasmania.[33]

Torres Strait Islanders

The Torres Strait Islander people possess a heritage and cultural history distinct from Aboriginal traditions. The eastern Torres Strait Islanders in particular are related to the Papuan peoples of New Guinea, and speak a Papuan language.[34] Accordingly, they are not generally included under the designation "Aboriginal Australians". This has been another factor in the promotion of the more inclusive term "Indigenous Australians". Six percent of Indigenous Australians identify themselves fully as Torres Strait Islanders. A further 4% of Indigenous Australians identify themselves as having both Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal heritage.[35]

The Torres Strait Islands comprise over 100 islands[36] which were annexed by Queensland in 1879.[36] Many Indigenous organisations incorporate the phrase "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander" to highlight the distinctiveness and importance of Torres Strait Islanders in Australia's Indigenous population.

Eddie Mabo was from "Mer" or Murray Island in the Torres Strait, which the famous Mabo decision of 1992 involved.[36]

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Aborigines
azərbaycanca: Avstraliya aborigeni
български: Аборигени
bosanski: Aboridžini
čeština: Austrálci
Deutsch: Aborigines
hrvatski: Aboridžini
Bahasa Indonesia: Pribumi-Australia
Jawa: Aborigin
kurdî: Aborjîn
Bahasa Melayu: Aborigin
日本語: アボリジニ
norsk: Aboriginer
norsk nynorsk: Aboriginar
rumantsch: Aborigines
Simple English: Indigenous Australians
slovenščina: Avstralski domorodci
ślůnski: Jaborygyny
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Aboridžini Australije
Tiếng Việt: Thổ dân châu Úc